50th anniversary: Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy lives on in Charlotte

50th anniversary: Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy lives on in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE, NC (AP/WBTV) - Hundreds reflected on Wednesday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the "apostle of nonviolence" silenced by an assassin 50 years ago.

King had envisioned the Poor People's Campaign in Washington as a way to speak out against economic injustice, as he shifted his focus from civil rights to human rights. But before he could finish those plans, he came to Memphis in 1968 to support a strike by black sanitation workers who were tired of dealing with low pay and dangerous working conditions.

King led a march in Memphis that turned violent on March 28, and he went back home to Atlanta. Seeking to prove that non-violent protests still worked, King vowed to lead a peaceful march and returned to Memphis days later.

The civil rights leader was standing on the balcony of the old Lorraine Motel when he was shot on April 4, 1968. He died at a hospital at age 39.

Seeds for Dr. King's 'Dream' Speech Sown in Charlotte

An uptown statue, a center city street, and a north Charlotte grade school all validate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., whose life we honor on this day.

Before hitting the global stage, King first spent time on North Carolina's historically black colleges - including Greensboro's Bennett College in 1958, and Charlotte's Johnson C. Smith University.

One particular trip to the Queen City offered insight into a moment that would define King's importance in American history. King visited in 1960 to what was then called The Park Center.

Kelly Alexander Jr. was among the 2,700 people who went to see King. "When you get somebody in town like Dr.King, the place is packed and jammed."

It was an opportunity for the people who were the future to actually see one of the generals of the movement in person up close and personal.

The visit came weeks after Charlotte integrated its restaurants following months of tense lunch counter sit-ins.

Activist Charles Jones who led the local student effort rubbed elbows with him at the Park Center and would be arrested with King months later in Albany, Georgia.

The word "dream" electrified the March on Washington, but an early version and vision of that speech were unleashed here in Charlotte.

Historian Tom Hanchett marvels at the fact King used the term dream in his text 14 times during his well-publicized visit to Charlotte.

The words were delivered in our city three years before such a profound gathering caused America to look itself.

The words were delivered Charlotte three years before such a profound gathering caused America to look at itself in a different way.

"He kept trying to find a way to say it that would catch people's imagination," Hanchett said, "and finally in Washington - on the March on Washington, 1963 - he had it. But he was searching for it right in Charlotte."

Dr. King Canceled a Visit to Charlotte Scheduled the Same Day as his Assassination

UNC Charlotte Atkins Library, home to signed letters by Martin Luther King Jr. to Kelly Alexander Sr. of the North Carolina NAACP, holds one very telling document to local civil rights activist Reginald Hawkins from King in the last days of his life.

He canceled a Charlotte visit scheduled for April 4, 1968 after deciding to stay in Memphis, Tennessee to help local sanitation workers.

"It's incredible to have materials created by Dr. King. Things that were in his possession. Things that he wrote his signature on," said Dawn Schmitz the associate dean for special collections and university archives.

A Journalist Reflects on Covering the MLK Assassination

Alex Coffin, a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution who covered the events around King's death and his legacy reflects on the assassination of the civil rights leader.

"50 years later, I'm delighted that I'm not having a hard time choking up," Coffin said.

Coffin still has his funeral program and ticket from the 1968 service.

"You're just not a reporter. In fact my heart is beating faster right now from just remembering that day," Coffin added.

Among the mourners was former YMCA Executive George Shinhoster who was assigned crowd control duties in his role with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

"We all were feeling that same sadness and that same sense of emptiness, if you will," Shinhoster said.

Alex Coffin agrees but raises a relevant concern that there is so much more to be done.

Copyright 2018 WBTV. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.